Five must-try traditional tapas in Logroño’s calle Laurel

Logroño’s calle Laurel is a required stop for both visitors and locals in search of tasty tapas and rioja. Nowadays, most of the bars have adapted their range of tapas to a more modern, elaborate style because of the influence of the bars in San Sebastian’s old town, but a few places here continue to offer tapas that have been popular for fifty years or more, using local raw materials or canned fish, prepared simply and cheaply. These bars are among the favorites of older natives of the region.

You should try them, too.

Calle Laurel wasn’t always a street full of bars and restaurants. In fact, it used to be one of Logroño’s red light districts. Local folklore says that the prostitutes used to hang a branch of bay leaves (‘laurel’ in Spanish) on their balcony to show prospective customers that they were free. The tradition of bars started when someone decided to open a bar where people could keep warm and have a drink while waiting for their favorite lady.

Our tour starts with

Hothouse mushrooms smothered in a garlic, olive oil and lemon sauce

Bar Soriano, Travesía de Laurel 2.  Closed Wednesdays and during the San Mateo wine harvest festival.

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Bar Soriano is unquestionably the most popular bar in the old town. According to José María Barrero, who’s in charge of the griddle, they serve over 7000 mushroom tapas a week. They source their mushrooms in Pradejón in Rioja Baja. Their sauce is a closely guarded secret but my wife thinks that it’s made from olive oil, garlic and lemon juice that’s blended into a thin sauce. It sounds easy to make, but several local competitors can’t come close to matching it.

The mushrooms are cooked in a little olive oil with salt on a very hot griddle. Just before they’re done, some sauce is sprinkled on top of the mushrooms. They are speared three at a time with a toothpick topped with a small piece of shrimp and put on a slice of bread.

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José María Barrero hard at work

Gilda

Bar Sierra La Hez, Travesía de Laurel, 1.

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What does this tapa, made with olives, hot green peppers and a salted anchovy have to do with Rita Hayworth? According to the Basque Gastronomic Academy website, this tapa was invented in 1946 in the Bar Vallés in San Sebastian, whose owner called it a ‘gilda’ because, like Rita Hayworth it was “salada”, verde y un poco picante”, literally, “salty, green and a little spicy” which aptly describes its appearance and taste but with a second meaning: “lively, uses salty language and a little provocative”.

In any case, it’s delicious. Sierra La Hez is also a great place to listen to Spanish music from the 70s and 80s and if you speak Spanish, owner Miguel Ruiz is a walking encyclopedia of this genre.

Patatas Bravas (Cooked potatoes with a spicy red and white sauce)

La Taberna del Laurel, calle Laurel 7.

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This is the perfect first stop when embarking on an evening in calle Laurel because the potatoes act as a barrier against the absorption of wine, beer or whatever you’re drinking. It’s always packed but you can hear the guy behind the bar yell “¡Una de bravas!” (An order of bravas) from the street outside.

Classic recipes for patatas bravas use only the spicy red sauce but the Taberna del Laurel, red sauce and a mayonnaise-like sauce to the red sauce.

You can find the recipe at the end of this post.

Bocadillo (small sandwich) with a half sardine in olive oil and a spicy green pepper

El Soldado de Tudelilla, calle San Agustín 33.

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It’s easy to make. Manolo, the owner of the bar, takes a piece of bread, slices it in half lengthwise, opens a can of sardines in olive oil and a can of spicy green peppers in olive oil, puts half a sardine and a pepper on the bread, and wraps it in a paper napkin. It tastes delicious with a glass of young red rioja.

If you want to know what bars were like 50 years ago, this is the place.  It features a zinc bar and a huge sink where tomatoes float and bottles of wine are chilling.  The wall behind the bar is covered with old bottles of rioja, some of whose labels are collectors’ items.

Sliced cod and red pepper in olive oil

Bar Achuri, Calle Laurel, 11.

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If you’re looking for traditional tapas, look no further, so forget about being squeamish and dive in. Among the delicacies on offer here in addition to cod are embuchados (fried sheeps’ intestines), fried pigs’ ears and roast cloves of garlic in rioja wine vinegar. YUM! No kidding!

These bars are also places where customers can enjoy words of wisdom as they eat and drink.  Here are some examples.

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La Taberna del Laurel: “It’s a beautiful day.  You’ll see how someone will come along to f@#k it up.”

 

img_5411Sierra La Hez: “I like to cook with wine.  Sometimes I even add it to the food.”

(Notice the tins of anchovies and sardines in olive oil behind the sign.)

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My favorite: Taberna del Laurel:  “Don’t steal.  The government hates the competition.”

Recipe for patatas bravas:

According to the directoalpaladar website, the red sauce isn’t tomato-based but rather a roux (slowly fried onions, sweet and spicy paprika and flour), to which you add chicken stock until creamy, then mix in a blender.

This website recommends:

  • three medium potatoes cut into bite-sized pieces, three tablespoons of sauce (see below), extra virgin olive oil, salt and a little parsley for decoration.
  • To make the sauce: ½ onion, ½ tablespoon of sweet paprika, one tablespoon of spicy paprika, two tablespoons of flour and ½ liter of chicken stock.

Chop the onion and slowly fry in a little olive oil. Before the onion browns, add the sweet and spicy paprika, mixing them with a wooden spoon.

Add the flour, fry it for a minute it or two and when the mixture starts to blend with the olive oil making a roux, add the chicken stock little by little to make a creamy sauce. Simmer for ten minutes so that the paprika and flour are cooked through, mix it in a blender and then strain.

If you’re in a hurry or not an especially accomplished chef (making a good roux takes time), I suppose you could make a thick tomato sauce and add Tabasco, but that’s cheating!

To cook the potatoes, there’s more than one option, like most things Spanish. Some recipes recommend just frying the pieces of potato while others suggest first boiling them for two minutes and then deep frying them.

 

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Homage to an unknown wine brand

In the world of food and wine, nowadays everybody’s talking about specialization. The world’s top restaurants are making names for themselves with revolutionary prep and cooking techniques while wineries are making wines from rare or newly discovered varieties and aging them in innovative ways in oak from the four corners of the world. Anything goes as long as it’s original.

The other day however, we ate at a small neighborhood restaurant in Santander where we were served everyday Spanish home cooking: beef stew, meatballs, grilled sardines, and salad, washed down with a chilled bottle of unlabeled red wine mixed with ‘gaseosa’, a fizzy, sugary bottled water whose closest equivalent outside Spain is Seven-Up.

A no-name wine with 'gaseosa'

A no-name wine with ‘gaseosa’

It was delicious (and unbelievably inexpensive – 24 euros for two), reminding us of meals in Madrid in the early 1970s when we used to go to the same local restaurant every day for lunch and served hearty portions of home cooking with unlabeled wine in carafes or bottles, two courses, dessert, wine and coffee for next to nothing. I vividly remember that the restaurant served a different main course every day, every week. I don’t remember the exact days, but it was something like chickpeas on Monday, beef stew on Tuesday, fried eggs, rice and fried bananas smothered in tomato sauce (arroz a la cubana) on Wednesday, paella on Thursday and fish, usually breaded fried hake fillets on Friday.

There was nothing pretentious about the food. No novelty, no experiments, just good, filling comfort food like people ate at home. And when you’re on a tight budget like we were, big lunches like those tided you over until the following morning.

Pochas, or white bean stew - the perfect comfort food.

Pochas, or white bean stew – the perfect comfort food.

Back then people would take their empty bottles to the corner tavern where the bottles were filled from a big vat with a spigot. The first year I lived in Spain was in a boarding house and the housemother used to ask any boarder who happened to be around before lunch to go out with a couple of bottles to fill. Restaurants would have this kind of wine wine delivered in large dame-jeannes called ‘garrafas’ where they were decanted into bottles or carafes.

A typical Spanish 'garrafa'. (Photo credit:  todocoleccion.com)

A typical Spanish ‘garrafa’.
(Photo credit: todocoleccion.com)

I never knew where this wine came from – it could have been Valdepeñas, La Mancha or Gredos west of Madrid – it was certainly from an area near Madrid – and didn’t have an appellation of origin. It didn’t even have a label! However, when chilled and mixed with ‘gaseosa’ it was the perfect accompaniment to simple, cheap, tasty, filling meals.

You might be wondering why everyone mixed the wine with this fizzy water. It wasn’t because the wine was undrinkable by itself but rather because we guzzled it like water. Moreover, in the summer, with temperatures almost always over 100º F (38ºC) it was the only way you could drink wine.

La Pirula, a local family style restaurant in Santander.

La Pirula, a local family style restaurant in Santander.

'Who drinks well, lives well'.

‘Who drinks well, lives well’.

The next time you’re in Spain, try one of these local restaurants, called tascas, tabernas or casas de comida where you can get a menú del día for as little as 10 euros. Try the house wine with gaseosa. No visit to Spain is truly fulfilling without this experience.